One morning last June, on their daily walk around their Sammamish subdivision, Jeff and Judy Bowlby discussed their son Justin. The University of Puget...
One morning last June, on their daily walk around their Sammamish subdivision, Jeff and Judy Bowlby discussed their son Justin.
The University of Puget Sound freshman was getting good grades, but lately he’d been acting a little off. Wired sometimes, sleepy at others. Jeff agreed to talk to him that evening, when he was due home for dinner.
But instead of Justin bounding through the door with an armload of dirty laundry, a chaplain from the King County Sheriff’s Office appeared. Justin had been found dead in his room by one of his fraternity brothers. An autopsy later revealed he’d ingested a fatal amount of methadone four days before his 20th birthday.
Justin. Methadone. Overdose. Fatal. The words were puzzle pieces that didn’t fit.
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An accomplished skier, surfer and wakeboarder, Jeff and Judy Bowlby’s son graduated from Skyline High School, enrolled in the Tacoma university where his parents had met, pledged his dad’s frat, and dated a girl from Gamma Phi, his mother’s sorority.
Blond and confident, he lit everyone up with his megawatt smile, though he directed his considerable charm to those who seemed most in need of it. Justin also got high on prescription drugs and had paid a Tacoma bartender “80 for 80” — $80 for 80 milligrams of methadone.
It was the first in a series of revelations for the Bowlbys. They also learned prescription painkillers are more popular and deadlier than ever among teens.
Accidental deaths associated with the drugs more than doubled statewide between 1995 and 2004, putting them ahead of illegal drugs in terms of accidental overdose, according to data from the state Department of Health.
The Sammamish area lost three other young people in drug-related deaths over a 4-½-month period last year, Jeff Bowlby said.
“It’s so easily accessible,” Justin’s friend Christy Penner said of the availability of the kinds of prescription drugs that are abused. “It’s all over the city.”
At Justin’s funeral, in front of 800 people, Jeff Bowlby spoke openly about the cause of his son’s death.
“It just wouldn’t seem right for us to say he died of anything different,” Judy Bowlby said. “Because who’s that going to help?”
Pills on the plateau
Affluent and full of active families, the plateau — a fast-growing, wooded suburb that spans eastern Issaquah and Sammamish — is the type of place where expensive pain medications tend to be more available, said Andreas Kaltsounis, a Sammamish Police Department detective.
And swallowing a pill, “as opposed to sticking a needle in your arm,” can be less intimidating, he said.
In the past couple of years, Tena Youngber, an addiction counselor with Youth Eastside Services, said she’s seen increased use of narcotic pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin in the Eastside schools where she works.
Teens find the drugs in their parents’ medicine cabinets, she said. Some sell or trade meds prescribed for their own sports injuries or attention-deficit disorders, such as the amphetamines Adderall and Ritalin, over the Internet. The Web also is full of online stores that sell narcotics, no prescription needed.
Penner said she used cocaine and OxyContin, in addition to the Vicodin she took from her mother. She could send a text message and meet up with a dealer in minutes.
Youngber said some users graduate from popping pills to chopping them up to snort or smoke in a pipe, practices she finds especially alarming. “It’s just showing me the desperation for the high,” she said.
The Bowlbys may never know if the Vicodin prescribed for Justin after he got his wisdom teeth removed was the beginning of his addiction. They aren’t sure whether he used drugs in high school and, if so, how much help might have been available.
Linda Corr, who oversees the Issaquah School District’s counseling staff, said substance-abuse resources offered by the district “are not deep at all.”
Students rarely broach the subject with counselors, she said, unless they’re brought in to be disciplined for using such substances.
Investigating high-school drug use is difficult for police and, in Sammamish, they don’t have the resources to do it, said Kaltsounis, the detective. The addicts he sees have usually committed other crimes and are older, he said, around 18 to 23.
By that age, Justin was in college in Tacoma.
Delivering the message
One recent evening at Pine Lake Covenant Church, Judy Bowlby made her way through rows of chairs, placing fliers about drug abuse on each.
As Justin’s brother, Taylor, readied the PowerPoint, Jeff Bowlby took the stage.
Speaking without notes, he described how Justin’s brain was “hijacked” by drugs. His addiction needed treatment like a broken leg needs a brace, he said.
On behalf of the nonprofit SAMA (Science and Management of Addictions), Bowlby exhorted parents to lock up their prescriptions and recognize that teens are especially susceptible to addiction, because their brains are not yet fully formed.
It was hard to tell whether the message was sinking in to the 50 or 60 people scattered among the 450 folding chairs lined up in the church gym. One woman later said the Bowlbys’ story had prompted her to buy a safe for the Adderall she takes for her attention-deficit disorder.
Another spent most of the presentation fiddling with her PDA, and later nodded off to sleep.
Others lashed out at parents who they say allow teens to drink or do drugs at their home, even joining in with them.
And one mother said she’d heard of a Skyline High School student who came to class drunk, and wondered why his teacher didn’t turn him in.
Interviewed after the forum, Skyline principal Lisa Hechtman said the campus has a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs, alcohol and tobacco on campus but that the issue belongs to the community, not just schools.
“I’ve got a parent who says a student is coming drunk to school,” she said. “She didn’t even stick around to tell me the name.”
That does not surprise Jeff and Judy Bowlby, who are on SAMA’s board. Several people came forward after Justin’s death to say they knew of or at least suspected their son’s drug use, though no one brought it up while he was alive.
For the sake of other families, they’re hoping that will change.
“We have a responsibility to take care of each other,” Jeff Bowlby said. “It’s not OK to keep the secret.”
Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or email@example.com